Saturday, January 19, 2008

More On Meaning From Meaninglessness

I started reading, for the first time since the autumn of 1994, Thomas Kuhn's The Copernican Revolution, the work that predated The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, and in some ways anticipates the arguments he would set forth in the later work. Indeed, in some respects, the earlier work can be seen as one long example of what he was talking about when he spoke of "normal science" and "paradigm shift" and "Gestalt shifts" and the like. Early in the first chapter, he makes a bold statement that is at the heart of his study:
We need more than an understandingof the internal development of science. We must also understand how a scientist's solution of an apparently petty, highly technical problem can on occasion fundamentally alter men's attitudes toward basic problems in everyday life.

Early on in the paragraph containing the above quite, he sites Darwin's theory of evolution by natural selection as another example of a scientific theory that had all sorts of social and cultural implications far outside the bounds of the very narrow confines of science within which it was first created, and for which it served its only real function.

I think the social and cultural implications of "Copernican Astronomy" were enormous, although their movement through western society was much slower than the explosion created by Darwin. Part of that, of course, was the abstract nature of the argument - Copernicus did nothing more than alter the base of calculations, and Kuhn is quick to point out the margin of improvement in astronomical calculations didn't improve all that much by using the Copernican solution. In many ways, it would be the invention of the telescope that would spell the end of Ptolmaic Astronomy; yet, once again, Kuhn is quick to point out there is no reason this is so. A telescope does not remove one from to earth to see it speeding around the sun. In many ways, the telescope provided not so much confirmation of Conpernicus, as create more problems - suddenly there were all these stars no one knew were there!

Why do we ascribe such importance to these issues? Why do we continue to have debates over the meaning for us of a theory on the origins of species? Why do some people insist, despite all the evidence, that the theory cannot be true? What is the fundamental threat posed to human society by a scientific theory?

This question is at the heart of the matter, really. Evolution deniers (no different, in spirit, from Holocaust deniers) insist that if evolution is true, meaning is ripped from life. What a load of horse apples fresh from on a summer afternoon. The theory of evolution by means of natural selection has nothing whatsoever to do with meaning; it is descriptive of natural processes, observable by any human being, that have resulted in the diversity of life on our planet. At the bottom of the ocean are huge tube worms sitting in water so hot and acidic, no biochemical compound should remain stable; yet they not only exist there, but anchor an entire eco-system based upon the nutrient rich outflow from superheated vents. Where is there meaning, however one wishes to define that word, in that?

Copernicus did not set out to destroy millennia-old cosmologies, but to correct calculating errors in astronomy. Darwin did not set out to upset the psyches of generations of fundamentalist Christians, but to answer the simple question - where do all these different kinds of animals come from? Those whose heads explode when they contemplate Darwin, or even Copernicus (I suppose they still exist somewhere, too), miss the point if they think either individual, or the theories associated with them, have any meaning whatsoever outside the narrow confines of scientific applicability for which they were constructed.

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